Rabbi David Rybstein plays chess with his sons at the Brooklyn Chess Club at the Seaview Jewish Center in Canarsie, Brooklyn
David Rybstien advises his son, Aaron, to bring out the white-squares bishop from the back file before pushing a pawn to D-3. Otherwise, the bigger piece will be trapped and useless too long into the opening. This is an odd setting for a chess lesson, a small, cluttered back room of the Seaview Jewish Center in Canarsie. But it is a place that in many ways symbolizes the head office for chess in the borough, in the city, and in the country. For here now resides the Brooklyn Chess Club, and Brooklyn remains the heartbeat of that 600-year-old pastime.
The U.S. champion and world champion candidate, Gata Kamsky, resides here in Brooklyn. So does Alex Lenderman, the U.S. Open champion. The seven-time national high school champions, Edward R. Murrow High School, hold chess club meetings every Thursday after class, preparing for the next tournament. There are less formal games played every week at the Wendy's at the corner of Flatbush Avenue and Empire Boulevard. In Coney Island, the greybeards are out in force, pushing pawns in Seabreeze Park. There is now even an annual Brooklyn Chess Championship, begun last February to serve the competitive masses.
Chess is said to be a sport for kings and immigrants. And while Brooklyn may be lacking somewhat in royalty, it has a reliable, renewable source of brainy newcomers. Kamsky and Lenderman arrived via Russia. Maurice Ashley, the first black chess grandmaster, came to Park Slope by way of Jamaica. The game is a way of building new friendships in a new world, while thoroughly exercising the cranium.
"This is a kibitzing crowd, a great way to play," Rybstien says of his sessions. "For four hours, you eat, schmooze and your wife knows where you are."
The Brooklyn Chess Club has a long and illustrative history, marked by a series of reincarnations, relocations and geniuses the likes of Bobby Fischer. Back in 1855, the Brooklyn Eagle declared the club, "Without any exception, the largest Chess Club in the United States." Players came for this check-mating ritual to sites on Myrtle Avenue, Joralemon Street, Court and Remsen Streets and Fulton Street.
Much has changed since Thomas Nichols, Esq., was elected the club's first president in 1855. Rybstien now calls himself "president and dishmaster" of the club, which is really just a distant relative of the place where Fischer once enthralled the cognoscenti. Rybstien reestablished the club here in the Orthodox Jewish synagogue about a dozen years ago, after it fell apart at the downtown Brooklyn site. He also happens to be rabbi and cantor at the Seaview Center.
"I need the mitzvahs," Rybstien says, explaining why he bothers to prepare food, maintain computer ratings, organize tournaments and set the tables for the 30 or so participants who arrive every Saturday to play for several hours. The club posts its own ratings, separate from the U.S. Chess Federation, based on an algorithm of Rybstien's own invention that considers the quality and length of a game, not just the result.
Abilities range widely, right up to international master Danny Kopec, who at times will play simultaneous matches blindfolded. The players who are Orthodox Jews do not punch the chess clock during these matches held on Saturdays, the Sabbath. That would be considered work. The crosses on top of the kings have been removed so they are secular. Clearly, the crowd here is largely Jewish, many with Russian backgrounds. A few bring flasks of vodka along.
"Jews are not good at physical sports," Rybstien says. "Mothers get scared. If the kids can't sit and read books, then just play chess."